Turkey Has One Big Problem in Neighbor Syria

Turkey can’t stand on the sidelines of the Arab spring but intervening in Syria is risky.

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey's foreign minister, answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18, 2011
Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18, 2011 (NATO)

The popular uprisings that toppled decade-old dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya last year forced the Turks to reconsider their famed “zero problems with neighbors” policy and take sides. They welcomed the winds of change and proved quite willing to cut their ties with Middle Eastern despots after years of engagement in order to promote their own model of Islamist democracy and maintain an influence.

Regime change in Egypt and Libya was brokered by Western powers, alleviating Turkey of the burden of balancing their rhetorical support for anti-government protests with a realist imperative to compromise with (military) caretakers.

In Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is refusing to listen to the rest of the world and continues to crush the revolt against his regime, the Turks have finally to come to terms with the situation and decide how serious they are about supporting the Arab cause.

For now, Ankara doesn’t appear willing to do more than let the Syrian opposition organize on its soil and refugees pour in from the south despite demands from Damascus that it seal the border. Turkish diplomacy appears to have little effect. Writes Leon Hadar in The National Interest, “Turks certainly seem to have made very little impression on the Machiavellian rulers in Damascus, who rejected Erdoğan’s pleadings to play nice.” The Turkish leader urged his Syrian counterpart as early as March of last year to “respond positively” to the demands of his people. Instead, Assad sent tanks into rebel cities. “So much for Turkish soft power,” concludes Hadar.

The Arab Spring, he believes, has taught Turkey that reshaping the Middle East in its image “involves more than just sending trade missions to the Arab world, producing captivating television soap operas or pledging a commitment to promote the Palestinian cause.”

Indeed, while Americans may be from Mars and Europeans from Venus, the Middle East is now experiencing an explosive big bang, and Turkey is finding that being pulled into the developments in the region is like being drawn into a political black hole — and that getting out of it requires more than just soft power.

Hoping that the next generation of Arab leaders copying the Turkish model will put an end to the unrest is naive, he adds.

After all, the evolution of Turkey into a more or less functioning democracy was a century long drama involving larger than life players like Atatürk, social instability, political crises, ethnic warfare, military coups, the emancipation of women and the rise of a new middle class and business elite.

Even today, there is a very real tension between Turkey’s secularists and conservative Muslim majority represented by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party. Similar tension is apparent in the new Egypt where the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood secured nearly a majority of seats in the nation’s freely elected parliament this year. In Egypt as well as Tunisia, religious minorities and secular Muslims fear an Islamist revival that could crush their freedoms and those of women.

In Syria, it seems that minority Alawites, Christians and Druze as well as the inhabitants of cities in the coastal areas are far less in favor of regime change than people in the Sunni dominated south and southwest of the country where the uprising is strongest. They are afraid that the revolt, if successful, will make life harder for them in the short term.

Hadar nevertheless recommends that the Turks work with the Arab League to negotiate Assad’s exile even if the aim of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, is probably to see the Sunnis take power and move Syria away from its alliances with Hezbollah and Iran. Arab and Turkish peacekeepers should then move in to restore order.

It may not bring about the sort of multiethnic democracy that Western observers are hoping for overnight. But it would be a chance for the Turks to prove that they are prepared to assume the responsibility that comes with being a regional power.

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, told France 24 that he was “ready to do everything for [the] Syrian people” last month but stopped short of endorsing calls for military intervention at the time. The Turks hesitate to go it alone and for good reason but the United States will probably not make the choice for them this time.